Arab Spring Overview

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The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring refers to a wave of revolutions and protest movements which have spread across the Middle East. They began first in Tunisia, but have quickly spread to almost every nation of the region. They are generally targeted against ruling dictatorships and monarchies which have failed to provide economic benefits befitting the populace's sacrifice of rights.

Some people believe that there are no rules governing a dictatorship; however, this is utterly false. It is true that the more authoritarian and simpler a government, the fewer rules there are. However, there are still rules. The fundamental rule that a dictatorship must obey has to do with economic success. When a person's economic and social freedoms are stripped from them, they come to rely on the power at hand to provide. In the Middle East, after WWII, dictatorships overthrew monarchies and colonial regimes. Their platform was clear; economic prosperity and development. However, the governments deteriorated into a spoils system where only the friends of the dictators reaped any rewards. These governments were left ruling over their people by fear, and the slim hope that something good would come from this ordeal. Across the Middle East, dictators and despots ruled for sixty years. They used the animosity between the people and Israel to deflect popular resentment. When that failed, they used brute force. In 2011 it all changed.

Mohammed Bouazizi was not a remarkable man. Rather, he was an every-man, a person who typified the lives of many in his community. For many years, the dictators who ruled his country failed to provide jobs and economic growth. In Mohammed's country of Tunisia, unemployment reached almost 30%. However, Mohammed had a family to provide for. Regardless of what unemployment figures say, a person needs to find a way to put food on the table. He took to selling vegetables at a local market, an honest way to make some money for his family. However, in order to conduct business in these markets one needs a permit. In lieu of that permit, one needs to bribe the police. Week after week, Mohammed got shaken down by police, who took what little money he had. Finally, they took his scales. Not only a symbol of his trade, his scales were integral to his business. For Mohammed, this was one blow too many. He had tried to live by the rules. He had even applied to join the military. However, here he was, sitting in the dirt being spat on by police because he could not pay a bribe.

When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight with gasoline, it was the act of a desperate man. It was the act of a man who had played by the rules of the regime, a regime that promised a future, but provided none. The stranglehold of the regime limited his means of expression, so he chose to immolate himself. As I write this, I am sitting in a warm and neat office in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While I do not have the job I should want, I have many avenues to vent my frustration. I can protest government mismanagement, I can march in the streets, write angry letters, vote out an unpopular politician, or start a website. In Tunisia, none of these were options. Mohammed was stuck. For us, it is hard to imagine this type of "stuck." However, Mohammed's situation recurred across the Middle East. Literally millions of other young men and women felt just as stuck as he did. The government had requested that they sacrifice some freedoms, and in return they would get jobs. The governments had lied. Worse, when they tried to work on their own, these young people were exploited and forced to pay bribes. In this world, suicide by immolation seemed like a rational answer. What is more, millions of people suffering the same plight felt a kinship with Mohammed. They understood why this man had chosen to pour gasoline over himself, and then strike a match.

The protests were not instantaneous. It took Mohammed 18 days to die, an extremely painful death. During those eighteen days, international media uncovered the details of his life. People realized that while he may have been insane at the end, it was insanity that they could all feel and understand. Soon, it was understood that the first Martyr of the Arab Spring had died.

With the Symbol of Bouazizi at hand, Tunisians took to the streets. Aided by social media, which allowed for easy organization of protests, the Tunisian people locked down the country. Their protests clogging key streets and bringing the economic functioning of the country to a standstill. It was soon clear that then President Ben Ali would not use deadly force to quell the protest. Just weeks after the protests started, Ben Ali stood aside and a transitional government took power. Here is the real key to the Arab Spring. Had Bouazizi died in any other country, it is likely his death would have been covered up, or the uprising squashed immediately. However, Tunisia was one of the more open dictatorships. This allowed for ample reporting of what had happened to him, and how the protestors had succeeded. Tunisia, in effect, provided the rest of the Middle East with a blueprint. Then it provided them with encouragement. The internet lit up with calls for revolution. Even from my position in Michigan, I could witness the calls from friends in the Middle East for peaceful protests. The internet had transformed the game. Now Tunisian patriots were able to communicate with Egyptian protestors and tell them what worked and why. Support flowed out of the newly-free Tunisia and into the rest of the Arab world. Many in Egypt and other countries, suffering from massive unemployment and a regime which left few possibilities open, were left to ask: Why not us? Why can't we be free?

In reply, massive protests erupted across Egypt. They focused on key highways and markets, effectively shutting down the economy of Egypt. Workers throughout the country went on strike. President Mubarak dispatched the military to quell the uprising. However, he forgot something tremendously important. While his officers were members of his trusted elite class, the soldiers were not. Every man in Egypt is required to serve in the military. When Mubarak ordered the soldiers to fire, the military refused. They were being ordered to fire on their neighbors, not something they were ready to do. Instead, they sat on their tanks and took tea with the protesters. In several well-documented occasions, the military fought off Pro-Mubarak paramilitary units. Without military support Mubarak fell, and as of September 2012 was on trial in Cairo. The government has been temporarily taken over by the military, with promises to hold quick and fair elections. In an effort to divert fears that the Muslim Brotherhood would attempt to grab power, the Brotherhood announced that it would not run for a majority of seats in Parliament. This means that no matter what, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to work with other parties, and has gone a long way towards assuaging fears of a completely Islamic state.

Mubarak was seen as one of the most powerful dictators in the Middle East. His fall was nothing like that of Ben Ali, who was seen as a weak dictator. This created a new narrative, new to our story but old to the history of the world, a David and Goliath narrative. Now protests began erupting in countries who were presumed to be safe totalitarian regimes. In both Syria and Libya, uprisings sprouted up. No one expected Libya. The general reaction to the news of peaceful protests in Libya was, "dear god, how many thousands will die?" Against all odds, the Libyans rallied and routed President Muammar Ghadaffi from the capitol. After months of bloody fighting, the Mad Dog of the Middle East was held up in two small cities, while the rest of Libya celebrates freedom. Libya is not done writing its future. There are innumerable ways for this conflict to turn out, however, none will include Ghadaffi.


The uprisings in Syria and Iran present two less upbeat notes. In Iran, the government enjoys the support of a large number of citizens. When protestors took to the streets of Tehran, they did not enjoy the same advantages as they did in other areas. The Iranian military is very, very well equipped for this type of engagement. It is also remarkably willing to use force, unlike the Egyptian military. The internet is also governed by a much more complex web of security measures, making organization much harder. The military struck at protestors before they even reached the sites of the protests. Hundreds were killed, and many more were arrested. Paramilitary forces beat and harassed those who escaped. Sadly, the failure of the protests has proven the strength of the Iranian government. When all around them nations were crumbling, the protests within their own nation were squashed in a matter of days. The crackdown did elicit international condemnation. However, the already strong sanctions against Iran limited the impact of international criticism.


In Syria, the government has resorted to the use of force against the civilians. The uprisings in Syria began as calls for reform. President Assad was actually quite popular. However, when protests began to grow, and threatened government control of certain areas, force was applied. Reliable numbers are hard to find, however, since the uprisings in Syria began, it is believed that as of mid-September 2012 more than 2,600 people had been killed. The Syrian government has launched full propaganda campaign to explain its actions. It has voiced its messages mainly through the state owned SANA news, . It claims that the protestors are forced onto the street by terrorists and that the military is using force only in response to the terrorist activities. The government has also launched a "National Dialogue" that, it claims, is intended to hear out the demands of the protestors. However, no one is quite sure how this dialogue works or who will be chosen to participate. Furthermore, while the government has produced videos showing what it labels as "terrorists," there have been very few confirmed reports of armed resistance. In stark contrast to the government claims, there have been numerous cases of unprovoked fire into crowds of protestors by soldiers.

The situation has grown so grim that the international community has begun to weigh in. The U.S. broadened its sanctions against Syria. The European Union, one of Syria's largest importers of oil, banned all oil imports. Furthermore, it banned the travel of any Syrian official engaged in the suppression and froze their assets. Turkey, one of Syria's neighbors, also weighed in. Turkey called for an immediate cessation of all violence against civilians. It provided Syria with two weeks to comply. At the end of the two weeks, Syria replied by shelling a town on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border. This evoked outrage from Turkey, who condemned Syria's action and promised that if the killing did not stop there would be dire consequences. No one knows what exactly that implies, and this is undoubtedly the intent. While this seems to constitute a huge blow against Syria, there are still countries in the international realm which support Syria. Iran has provided advisors and material to Syria. As Syria is a key regional ally, this should come as no surprise. The Russian Federation has also stood against further sanctions on Syria, calling them unproductive and chastising the EU for what it calls "unilateral actions." Syria's neighbor Lebanon, who relies on Syria for much support, has also remained close.

It is unclear what will happen in Syria. It is unlike other countries that have gone through this transition. In Syria, there is an elite Alewite religious minority that maintains disproportionate control of the military and government. Should the revolution succeed, the positions in government of these people would be appreciably diminished. Thus, they have a vested interest in defending President Assad and his government. Syria is a key issue for this simulation. The E.U. and U.S. have already proclaimed that the Syrian government has lost legitimacy; however, other countries disagree. No one can predict how the Syrian situation will be resolved. However, with the body count already at 2,600 it must be resolved. It should be stated that Bashar al Assad's father, Hafez al Assad, killed an estimated 17,000-40,000 people in order to maintain power.


Israel has not escaped the Arab Spring. Called the Israeli Summer, protests have also afflicted Israel. In Israel, like the rest of the Middle East, the protests were driven by economic failures. In Israel, the price of housing has risen 65% in two years. This places good housing that is a reasonable distance from city employment out of the reach of many Israelis. At the same time, Israeli politicians subsidize housing in settlements, using the taxes of the same Israelis who have a hard time finding adequate housing in Israel proper. The outpouring of Israelis into the street was unprecedented. Some protests attracted more than 600,000 residents. Israelis followed the Arab lead. They established tent cities in main thoroughfares to cut off trade and draw attention. The "Israeli Summer" has been a blight on the current Israeli government. While the protests were peaceful, this demonstrates that even Israel has had to deal with popular discontentment. Economic stagnation has presented a real problem for Israel's middle class. These protests have forced Israel to confront both domestic and international challenges at the same time.

Jordan & Saudi Arabia

There are some nations that have come through the Arab Spring relatively unscathed. Jordan is one such example. While protests occurred in Jordan, they were aimed largely at the government, not at the king. In response to protester demands, King Abdullah II sacked his cabinet. The King has also put forward real reforms, reforms which monitor the constitutionality of his government and enhance civil liberties. While the reforms are not earth-shattering, they are seen as a first step by a government willing to adapt. These reforms likely only bought the King a reprieve, though. Abdullah II has been viewed as a progressive monarch but it is likely that the Arab Spring will accelerate the pace of reform considerably. It is also unlikely that the current reforms will satisfy the populace forever.

Saudi Arabia is another country which has come through the Arab Spring unscathed, though much of this is due to the allegiance of the clergy to the monarchy. There were small protests, but these protests were generally allowed by the King, so as to demonstrate the freedom available in Saudi Arabia. However, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is not willing to tolerate change that jeopardizes their interests. Bahrain, a primarily Shiite nation, is under the rule of a Sunni minority. This is a situation which mirrors Syria. The Shiite majority attempted to rise up. However, the government tried to use force to quell the uprising. When that failed, Saudi Arabia dispatched its armed forces to aid Bahrain, quickly putting down protestors that it called "terrorists."

How does the Arab Spring change the diplomatic nature of the Middle East?


The key countries here are Egypt and Turkey. The Mubarak regime had relied on aid from America, to bolster its finances. This aid was contingent on Egypt's support for Israel. However, this support was deeply unpopular. The Mubarak regime was able to use coercion and suppression to put down the voices of discontent. Also, since it was not answerable to the people via elections, it was able to avoid any repercussions from popular discontent. However, now the Egyptian government is promising free and fair elections. This means that politicians will be answerable to the will of the people. While U.S. aid is still relevant, gaining office must also be considered. Egypt will not go to war with Israel. This is not what the people want. However, the Egyptian populace does want a cooling of relations between Israel and Egypt. Recently Israeli Defense Forces shot and killed eight Egyptian police officers who were patrolling the border. This resulted in the storming of the Israeli embassy by protestors; no one was killed. The Egyptian people want to see Egypt take a leadership role in the Middle East.

One of the key demands is to open the borders with Gaza. This has occurred on and off in recent months; however, it is likely this will be one of the key changes in the next few months. Furthermore, Egypt is likely to cooperate less with Israel economically. While this will have a detrimental impact on Egypt, Egypt-Israel economic cooperation is deeply unpopular. Egypt will honor the peace treaty it has signed, but one can expect much more pressure from Egypt on Israel to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The creation of a Palestinian state must be at the center of any hopeful Egyptian's political strategy.


Turkey has sensed a diplomatic opportunity. It has sought to strengthen ties with countries leaving totalitarian control. Turkey is trying to become the embodiment of a new Middle East. In recent weeks, Turkey has been given an unprecedented chance to step into a massive Middle Eastern power vacuum. For decades, Turkey has tried to recast itself as a true Middle Eastern power player. With the fall of many dictators, it has been given a chance to do exactly that. Turkey seeks to serve as an example to its neighboring countries of how a secular and modern Islamic state can exist. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkey has been providing humanitarian aid to struggling transitional governments. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has personally visited Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya; pledging Turkey's support. Turkey is attempting to recast its image as a nation in favor of democracy for everyone, and a supporter of the Arab Spring. If it is successful, Turkey stands to become one of the key diplomatic players in the region. It has a unique blend of characteristics which make it particularly appealing to all sides: it is an Islamic state, it has extensive trade arrangements with the Middle East, it engages openly with the West, it is growing quickly, it has a large population, and it has a strong military. This means Turkey is positioned to become an immense power in the Middle East.

However, Syria poses a problem for Turkey. How can Turkey, looking to recast itself in a democratic, free, and pro-Islamic image, tolerate the killing of protestors on its national doorstep? This throws doubt on the narrative Turkey is attempting to establish. Turkey has been criticized for not doing enough to stop Syrian aggression. Remember, Turkey and Syria are neighbors and in recent years have been growing closer, economically and politically. Now this relationship is a liability. Turkey has attempted to use diplomatic measures to dissuade the Assad regime from using violence. Turkey has endorsed sweeping political changes and encouraged the recognition of the people's demands. Turkey has also condemned the use of violence. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has personally visited President Assad and made these suggestions clear.

Western Nations

For many Western countries, recent changes mean immense challenges. How, for example, is the U.S. going to control Egyptian foreign policy? Will Egypt become a Sharia based country? What does that even mean? The U.S. and E.U. have been struggling to remain on the right side of the Arab Spring. Without NATO involvment, Libya would have never fallen. The E.U. and U.S. worked together to put in place effective sanctions on Syria. They were among the first to declare the Assad government illegitimate. It is clear that western powers want to come out on the winning side of this social revolution. For them to dominate the political process of a democratic country, in the way they had Egypt of the past, is just unfeasible. Rather, they are attempting to engender good will in the hopes that these nations will be more open to cooperating with Western powers. Here, Egypt is a superb example. It is clear that relations between Israel and Egypt will never be the same. However, the support of Western powers will undoubtedly force relations to remain amiable. Also, Middle Eastern countries need to be included in the larger international arena. Middle Eastern companies need access to Western markets. This means that relations between East and West will undoubtedly continue. While the West will not have the same level of control, its influence through the market and aid will remain strong. The new Middle East will be called upon to chart its own path and prove its democratic credentials. Israel is leery of the changes on its borders. Should Assad, who has brought decades of stability, fall, who will replace him? What is the future of Israeli and Egyptian trade? How will relations with Jordan continue? Will Lebanon and Iran continue to support Syria? What will Turkey do?

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